I would give this book six stars, if that was possible. Having just finished it, I am, obviously, still aglow with that feeling -- part sadness that it is over, part contentment and happiness for having had the experience -- you get after turning the final page of a really, really good story. I can't think of anything about this book that did not impress me.
Macao Station by Mike Berry (@XenoMike) is a science-fiction thriller that has everything I loved about the movies Alien, Aliens and Outland: a fascinating and engrossing setting, rich imagery, white-knuckle tension, plot twists, explosive action and intelligent, well-drawn characters.
Set far in the future, the titular space station is a mining outpost on the very edge of human-colonized space. Years from the nearest human settlement, Macao is surrounded by a mineral-rich asteroid belt that provides just enough income for the Farsight Corporation to keep the station in operation. In fact, to offset costs the corporation has actually turned one part of the station into a high-security prison.
To say the station is run-down and dilapidated is an understatement; the smallish maintenance section toils daily keeping the lights on and air breathable. The small ships used for mining the asteroid belt are pitted by rock strikes, worn out and prone to breakdowns, and until the annual resupply shuttle arrives the tavern only has synthetic beer to serve. But that station is also a small town, with everyone knowing everyone else, and what they're up to -- creating a close-knit community.
But the asteroid belt around the station contains more than just minerals; there is something else there, something dark and unsettling to miner Lina McLough and her mates. Nearby are several Predecessor systems, so-called because evidence of an ancient civilization has been found on planets within it. No one knows what the Predecessors are (were?) or what happened to them, but a nasty rumor has started that the devastating psychoactive drug called "fader" sweeping through human space was found on a Predecessor planet.
Unsettling things begin to happen early in the book, and the tension builds and builds. The people who live on Macao are vaguely aware something isn't quite right, but they've existed within the barely functional/duct-taped-to-keep-it-going station for so long awareness is slow in coming. The final chapters are no less intense, but feature some truly exciting action sequences, often set in air-less and zero-gravity environments.
Mr. Berry has created a wonderfully rich setting for this story. This is no sterile Star Trek station; dirt, rust and metal shavings grind under foot and the food and coffee taste as bad as you'd expect. I'm no scientist or expert on space, either, but there are so many great touches that it is obvious the author has thought long and deeply on what it would be like to live and work in space. He describes the experience of mining an asteroid belt so clearly that I can't imagine it would happen any other way.
I also appreciated how Mr. Berry subtly reminds the reader that Macao is years from the nearest human outpost; there are no "sub-space" communications channels -- broadcasts take nearly as long as a spaceship -- so calling for help is not an option. They are truly on their own in dealing with any problems that may crop up.
The characters in the story are varied, interesting and well-drawn, from heroine Lina to Halman, the station controller, and Ella, the head of security. They're a somewhat independent and self-sufficient sort -- just what I expect of people who have lived and worked on a crumbling space station -- but also vulnerable as their glass-bottle existence on Macao has lulled and shielded them. When adversity hits, the threads of the community begin to fray.
The conclusion of the story is explosive and satisfying, but also somewhat open-ended, leading me to wonder if Mr. Berry has further plans for universe of Macao Station. If he does, I'll be the first in line to buy the next installment.